Today is the memorial of St. Augustine, bishop and doctor of the Church, who one commentator described a “sinner turned saint” (a label we could give to many of those who have been named saints).
Whether one is generally a fan of Augustine or not, his Confessions was very helpful to me at the time of my conversion from Buddhism back to Christianity. Indeed, I’ve often thought that it would have been a great help for me if someone has suggested that I read that work when I was 17 and engaged in the struggle that resulted in my abandonment of Christianity for over twenty years. Augustine’s humanness and his brokenness are evident in that work, as was his intense sorrow for his sins and his equally intense longing for God. At a time when I was having great difficulty finding my way, the book was a great help to me.
I deeply relate to Augustine’s words to God,
You were with me, but I was not with you. Things held me far from you- things which, if they were not in you, were not at all. You called, and shouted, and burst my deafness. You flashed and shone, and scattered my blindness. You breathed odors and I drew in breath – and I pant for you. I tasted, and I hunger and thirst. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.
After writing his Confressions, Augustine asked himself whether it was good that he had done so. He wondered: If I’ve come to regret my sinful past and if I believe God has forgiven me, why not simply put my past behind me. Why bother putting all this bad stuff from my past down on paper? His answer to that question was that it was the recognition of his own sinfulness that had led him to recognize the love of God. It was only when he realized the depth and extent of the presence of sin in his life that he was able to see who God is and how God worked in his life. Thus, for Augustine, recalling his sinfulness was a necessary part of his praise of God.
The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius has something of the same realization. In Week 1 of the Exercises, we come to see ourselves as “loved sinners.” We regret the ways we have missed the mark, but we do so confident in the love of our God, opening ourselves to God’s mercy. Throughout the Exercises, we come more and more to see how God is working in our life. And we give thanks.
St. Augustine and St. Ignatius, pray for us.